Wittenberg plays NCAC rival Wabash in home opener

It’s the first home game for the new head coach after three straight road games to start the season

The days of North Coast Athletic Conference football being a two-team race between Wittenberg and Wabash are over.

DePauw won the championship last season with an 8-1 record. Denison tied Wittenberg and Wabash at 7-2 in 2019. The same three teams tied atop the league at 8-1 in 2018. Wittenberg hasn’t won the league title outright since it was 9-0 in 2017. Wabash last stood alone atop the standings with a 9-0 mark in 2015.

DePauw topped the preseason poll this season, and Denison recorded the biggest early-season victory, beating Wabash 45-42 in Crawfordsville, Ind., last week.

Even with DePauw and Denison climbing into the top ranks of the NCAC in recent years, Wabash remains Wittenberg’s biggest rival. The Tigers (2-1, 2-0) and Little Giants (2-2, 1-1), the only programs to win outright championships between 2005 and 2017, meet at 1 p.m. Saturday at Edwards-Maurer Field in Springfield.

“I’d say this is still the game, especially this week with homecoming and it being or first home game,” Wittenberg wide receiver Jake Saus said. “This is the one we’ve had circled on the schedule for for a while.”

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Wittenberg won 35-14 at Wabash last season. It was Wittenberg’s most lopsided victory in the series since a 41-10 victory in 2000. Wittenberg picked off four passes and ran for 222 yards.

That was Joe Fincham’s last game against Wabash as head coach. Now Jim Collins will experience the rivalry for the first time in his first home game as head coach.

“To run the ball as effectively as they did and to hold their offense in check last year, that was really a great performance and their best game of the year,” Collins said. “We talked about that. We also talked about the fact that this year they’re a little bit different and we’re a little bit different.”

Quarterback Liam Thompson, a three-year starter, ranked second in the NCAC in passing yards (295.6) and touchdown passes (28) last season and leads the league this year (333.8 yards per game and 12 touchdown passes in four games). He threw for 341 yards last season against Wittenberg.

Thompson completed 24 of 42 passes for 347 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions against Denison. Wabash led 35-24 early in the fourth quarter and took a 42-38 lead on a 7-yard touchdown pass from Thompson to Penn Stoller with 45 seconds to play. Then Denison won the game on an 18-yard touchdown pass from Drew Dawkins to Billy Guzzo with six seconds remaining.

Wabash opened the season with a 56-12 loss at North Central, which ranks No. 1 in the D3Football.com poll, and then routed Wooster 48-14.

“Wabash’s offense is really tough to stop,” Collins said. “They’re explosive. Their quarterback makes them go, and they can score points from any spot on the field. Defensively, despite the fact they lost (to Denison), they play hard and they’re physical and they run to the football. So we’ve got to execute. We’ve got to protect the football. At the end of the day, it is going to come down to a four-quarter type of game where you got to play hard for 60 minutes.”

Wittenberg opened the season with three straight road games at SUNY Cortland, Kenyon and Hiram. It won 38-14 at Hiram last week

Quarterback Collin Brown has thrown seven touchdown passes to five players. Saus is one of six players who have between five and eight receptions.

Saus, a graduate of Archbishop Hoban High School in Akron, has 73 catches in his career. He’s one of the team’s fifth-year seniors who had an extra year of eligibility because of the lost pandemic season of 2020.

Deciding to return, Saus said, was a decision he wrestled with at first in the offseason, but he was the first player facing that decision to tell Collins he would be back.

“I definitely felt like I still had something left to prove, something left to play for,” Saus said. “Plus, talking to some of the other guys that came back for their fifth year — Mike Knock, Gene Nobles, Jeremaih Mensah — it was an easy decision to make to come back.”

Wittenberg tied for the NCAC championship in the first and second seasons of the fifth-year seniors but has not reached the playoffs in their careers. A victory against Wabash would be the first big step toward achieving that goal.

As part of homecoming weekend, Wittenberg will also induct seven athletes into its Hall of Honor: Matt Borland (soccer, 2009 graduate); Amy Cox (volleyball, 2011); Linda Iantuono Finn (field hockey, 1996); Paco Labrador (former volleyball coach); Ryan Taylor (basketball, 2001); Eddie Vallery (football, 2011); and John Paoloni (football, 1974).

Pat O’Conner (1980), the former CEO and president of Minor League Baseball, will become the eighth recipient of the Athletics Hall of Honor Lifetime Achievement Award. Two “Teams of Distinction” will also be honored: the 1964 and 1969 football teams.

“It’s going to be a great weekend to be a Wittenberg Tiger,” Collins said. “There’s no doubt about it. It’s going to be a great environment on Saturday.”

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